Pesticide Exposure Harms Children: How Can We Keep Them Safe?

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Scientific studies have concluded that children are especially vulnerable to pesticides. Both prenatal and postnatal exposure to pesticides at critical moments of a child’s development can affect biological growth processes and can have detrimental short and long term effects. Long term pesticide exposure has been linked to pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.

According to the National Pesticide Information Center infants and children are more sensitive to the toxic effects of pesticides than adults:

  • An infant’s brain, nervous system, and organs are still developing after birth.
  • When exposed, a baby’s immature liver and kidneys cannot remove pesticides from the body as well as an adult’s liver and kidneys.
  • Infants may also be exposed to more pesticide than adults because they take more breaths per minute and have more skin surface relative to their body weight.
  • Children often spend more time closer to the ground, touching baseboards and lawns where pesticides may have been applied.
  • Children often eat and drink more relative to their body weight than adults, which can lead to a higher dose of pesticide residue per pound of body weight.
  • Babies that crawl on treated carpeting may have a greater potential to dislodge pesticide residue onto their skin or breathe in pesticide-laden dust.
  • Young children are also more likely to put their fingers, toys, and other objects into their mouths.

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Why are pesticides used?

Pesticides are used to control various pests and disease carriers–infectious diseases such as West Nile virus, Lyme disease, and rabies can be carried and spread by mosquitoes, ticks, and rodents.  Indoor household pests such as cockroaches can contribute to asthma and allergies. Pesticides, such as herbicides, insecticides and fungicides are used in agriculture to control weeds, insect infestation and diseases.

How are children exposed to pesticides?

Children encounter pesticides daily in air, food, dust, and soil and on surfaces through home and public lawn or garden application, household insecticide use, application to pets, and agricultural product residues.

Rural children’s “double dose” of pesticide exposure is cause for concern. Children in agricultural communities are exposed to pesticides above and beyond the widely shared exposures from food residues and applications in schools, parks, homes and gardens. In some cases, these children also experience economic and social stressors that can exacerbate the health harms of agricultural chemicals.

What can we do to minimize our children’s exposure to pesticides?

  • Eat organic food when possible.  Ideas and tips here.
  • Minimize the amount of pesticide used around your home.
  • Avoid Permethrins. A 2013 Canadian study found permethrins in 97 percent of urine samples from grade-school children. Another 2013 study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found high permethrin levels in New York City residents. The EPA classifies permethrins as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” but permethrin insecticides are used on many food crops, and are the most common active ingredient in indoor/outdoor insect sprays (look for active ingredients ending in “rin”). Mosquito misting systems spray permethrins into the air several times a day, indoor foggers gas homes or buildings with permethrins, and any insecticide that claims to “kill on contact” usually includes a permethrin as an active ingredient. Chances of direct exposure rise in summer, when these insecticides are most commonly sprayed.  Read more
  • Consider adopting an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach. This approach emphasizes prevention, sanitation and exclusion, and utilizes pesticides only as a last resort when other options have failed.
  • Know what pesticides are used where your children go to school and play. 
  • Advocate for children The AAP recommends that parents work with schools and governmental agencies to advocate for application of least toxic pesticides by using IPM principles. Promote community right-to-know procedures when pesticide spraying occurs in public areas.

More Resources and Tips:

Photo credits jetsandzeppelins, Chris Christian


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